Clinging to Christmas - A Merry Christmas Wish

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE December 24, 2012

"The true story of Christmas, and my part in it, is as wonderful and complicated as the world itself"

Santa Claus in The Autobiography of Santa Claus

Christmas, like contemporary life is complicated. Over the years I've written about Peace on Neighborhood and wishing you the feeling of Christmas after the music stops. In each article we looked at the impact, lessons and power of Christmas against the backdrop of current events.

As a physician I have come to the conclusion, if I could write only one prescription for my would be to let go of oneself to the power of Christmas!

No discussion of this magic, complicated elixir called "Rx Christmas" can occur without the two key players - Santa and Jesus - and the lessons we learn from each.

Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Yes, there is a Santa. Don't believe me? Then read his autobiography, as told to Jeff Guinn. Or the now iconic story "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" published in The Sun, over 100 years ago.

I would wager nearly everyone reading this can remember the emotions felt when we first had our belief in Santa challenged by a classmate, cousin or unthinking adult. Would it be fair to say they included disbelief...that our friends were wrong...WRONG! Santa does exist. And to be sure, some parents go to great lengths to add realism. My cousins used to borrow a sleigh from friends and leave tracks in the snow and on their lower rooftop, as well as half chewed carrots and apples strewn about the lawn as if reindeer were munching on them. My father climbed on the roof over my bedroom in heavy boots carrying bells to make sure I thought Santa was up there, while mom had one of her associates write a note to me from Santa, so the writing would be unrecognizable, left ½ eaten cookies by the fireplace, and came in to make sure I stayed in bed and did not have surveillance going (being the curious science nerd, yes I once rigged a microphone by the tree at the age of 6). That's love! And I know many of my friends go through great lengths to make sure their kids believe in Santa for as long as possible.

When Santa is no longer believed in there is a loss of innocence.  Can we, must we do something about this? Is the lesson we teach our children about what Santa is, and isn't critical?

Libraries and bookstores are filled with teen books sharing the angst of adolescence and loss innocence, coming of age and growing up - most have to do with romance and encounters. But one could argue, especially in our techno driven, cynical, immediate information Google, Wiki world that the most powerful and sad loss of innocence that we as adults - parents, mentors, Auntie Mames - must address is the loss of Santa. Oh not because the present count under the tree drops exponentially, and yes it does as anyone who was a child can attest, but because "belief" is shattered. And to be sure, we all have to grow up. But do we not owe children, and ourselves the opportunity to believe? And if so, in what?

I would argue the Spirit of Christmas is a good place to start. He lives in the hearts and minds of all of us. Are our children too young to learn that?

"I want to believe"

Robert the Bruce in the film Brave heart

The future King of Scotland didn't specify in his impassioned statement to his dying father, what exactly he wanted to believe in, just that he wanted to believe. One could surmise it was the attributes of William Wallace - courage, integrity, doing what is right because it is right, not mandatory.

Looking around at the crowd the other day at the 57th annual Mystic Seaport Community Caroling event - a most wonderful afternoon which draws hundreds, maybe even a thousand people from local towns (and in the process collects lots of food and money for charity) to sing Christmas music outdoors in the cold New England river-side air, many of which were children, my friend Dave and I wondered aloud when would their innocence be challenged, and their belief in Santa, end? Who would they believe in after Santa was relegated to their youthful childhood, and should Santa be dismissed because, perhaps, there isn't a jolly, chubby man who travels powered by flying reindeer on the wind? Although if you check the NORAD satellite tracking system on Christmas Eve, you might rethink that disbelief, as our top military radar regularly pinpoints Santa globally throughout the night. Would you argue with NORAD? But I digress.

We all need to believe, to believe in something or someone greater than ourselves. And who or what can children believe in when Santa is part of their past?

Should our children believe in our political leaders? Seriously? I live in Massachusetts....we indict our State House leaders as fast as the paperwork can be drawn up. The alcohol lobby must love Congress....DUI seems to be a perk associated with reelection. Perhaps this is a good time of year in our world of 24 hour political reporting to challenge our leaders to remember they are potential role models. Alas, as Governor Huntsmen frequently opined, we have lost our faith in our leaders and institutions of power. It was self inflicted.

Sports figures? How do you spell drugs, sex, violence, doping, cheating, conspicuous consumption, and a win at all cost mentality! Celebrities? Unless we are talking BradJolina, and a few others who have dedicated their time getting their hands dirty on site, and spending their wealth to help people (few and far between in Pamperwood, California), not folks to believe in. Fantasize about being them, maybe, but believe in, no! If in doubt, reread sports figures. Yeh, I want that group of pampered divas inspiring my kids if I had any. Great values to impart to kids? Seriously?!

God? Jesus? The Almighty has pretty much been expunged from our lexicon and daily discourse. Merry Christmas has been replaced by Happy Holidays. The Clergy? In an ideal world, but that hasn't been the case as we have seen. No wonder many of our churches have empty pews. There was a time when I believed in and even believed my clergy.  Now only a handful of them have earned that privilege. I recently left a congregation I had attended since childhood because, well let writer David Hare sum up what many Christians, and Jews, have observed, in his narrative "When Shall We Live?""It seemed delightful comedy to come upon a Christian institution which seemed terrified of mentioning its own founder's name. The Christ who threw the moneylenders out of the temple would, I think, have been as bewildered as me by an established church which as timidly allowed itself to become so close to the secular institutions of the day. At first sight it looks like an organization which now lacks the courage to set itself apart...too frightened to remind us that its determining values are in fact radically different from those of the rest of society..." If we cannot convey a living belief in the values of Christ, which if you will excuse the phraseology, are Christmassy (love thy neighbor, help the poor), or philosophy of mitzvah, why should children consider church, God or even many of the adults they meet as relevant? No wonder Santa rocks! And churches are dwindling. Not that that is where God solely lives, any more than Santa purely resides at the North Pole. Both God and the spirit of Santa are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe....a tough concept to impart to an 8 year old who has just lost the physical manifestation of Good embodied in Santa, and for which their minds have yet come to process Santa the concept is eternal, if though the man or Elf is not.

What about parents? One would hope. But hope is not a strategy.

Adult role models? If only there were enough. For children it should be their parents, the adults they meet, and of course Santa - his spirit of generosity if not the jolly fellow in red. But none of us over the age of five live in the "land of should."

As a high mileage adolescent, I still want to believe, and in many ways do believe in Santa and the inherent goodness of people. Just a shame the talents, generosity and kindness we see, seem stored up, dormant year-long, and only allowed to briefly manifest in this all too brief season.

Santa is the embodiment of all the good behaviors and virtues Jesus, Clement Moore, even Dickens through his Ghost of Christmas Present (Father Christmas?) portrayed and admonished us to share. Maybe Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas are too good to be true, and as such, remain Christmas' Super Hero - someone we love, and find fascinating, but down deep know can't exist anymore than Tony Stark and his flying, near indestructible Iron Man, or Thor with his magic hammer, or even near bullet proof Captain America and Wonder Woman.  Then again, maybe their virtues are unbeatable, forever - and that's what we need to impart when we hand out the Santa figurines.

"We need a little Christmas, right this very minute"

My friends Marya and Dan are like Auntie Mame and Uncle Mame (to take literary license) - they make every event feel like a Holiday, but especially Christmas. They gather a gaggle of guests - from Wiccan to Christian to spiritual - all of good will, taking our cue from the hosts who proffer goofy instruments, flashlights, food and song books as we descend upon their Connecticut village singing Christmas carols street by street.

I've joined them for several years, and now consider it one of those "must do" events in my Christmas life. And have written about some of the experiences observed in our caroling in prior FSM articles. What struck me this year - how many people stopped their cars, rolled down their windows, and just listened! People came out of their homes, some asked us to linger. The cold was unfelt. It was magical. It was the Spirit of Christmas.

And never would it seem that we need Christmas as much as we do in 2012. The economy is in bad shape, wars are occurring or about to break out throughout the world. Bethlehem, the spiritual center of the Christian world is in a violent hotspot, although thankfully both sides have found some level of accord, far better than other places in the West Bank or Gaza-Sderot region. Seems like someone we know has died or been seriously ill this year. Our political discourse resembles an across the fence meeting of the Hatfields and McCoys. Kids are going from Santa Claus to sex, materialism and rockn'roll in the blink of an eye. 

You could see the need for Christmas in the eyes of folks who got close enough to our merry band of musicians - babies, children and adults of all ages.

As the song says..."Where are you Christmas?"  A few nights ago, Christmas was on the streets being sung loudly!

My friends and I volunteer every year (for me 24 out of 26 years) at the annual Bishops Dinner on Christmas, before attending our own revels. I remember as if it was yesterday one year, my Mom and some friends were standing in line and we started talking to a family that looked like they belonged in a Neiman Marcus catalog. Perfectly quaffed from parents to children. Their jewelry and outfits could have paid for the event.  I, on the other hand, was in my traditional neon green tights and Santa costume. Can you really take a WMD expert serious in an Elf costume? OK, getting back to the story.... This family was just too beautiful and, though welcome, seemed out of place amidst the unwashed, impoverished, lonely - festive environment notwithstanding. As if reading my mind (wow, they aren't they typical profile of volunteers), the mother took me aside. "We've been very fortunate over the years; I wanted our children to learn very early that they are blessed, but others don't live in the same comfort. They should learn to serve and help others." 

Wow! I still get a warm chill when I think of it. And hope tomorrow a new story emerges for next years' article! Does anyone think the loss of Santa crippled that woman's children or their ability to "believe" that Christmas?

I want to believe. We all NEED to believe, and cling to something powerful, good, enduring.

As day must follow night, those of you who have read my annual Christmas articles, just know I'm going to quote Dickens... a lot!


My friends and I have started a tradition that, for us, sort of heralds the Christmas Season....every year in November we attend a most amazing one man performance of A Christmas Carol performed by the author's great great grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens. I've heard the story so often, since childhood when my father would read it every Christmas Eve to my cousins, friends, mom and me, that I can practically recite the text verbatim. And to Gerald's credit, he changes the performance, sometimes emphasizing one aspect over another each year. This year, I found a special power to his presentation, especially from a passage, that though Gerald did not ascribe any greater importance than usual to the final conversation between the Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge, the effect on me was powerful and took me to the point of this article....

Scrooge: "Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask but I see something strange and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts."

Ghost: "Look here."

From the folding of its robe, it brought two children, wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet and clung upon the outside of its garment.

Ghost: "Oh, Man! Look here. Look, look, down here!

Robin - No, I'm not in the play or the story, but allow me to interject. I would argue Dickens is not speaking solely to Scrooge when he admonishes "Oh, Man!" but in fact exhorting us as "mankind" to look upon our suffering neighbor.  OK, back to the text.

Scrooge: "Spirit! Are they yours?"

Ghost: They are Man's,' looking upon them. And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers."

Like the wretched children clinging to the Spirit of Christmas Present, Dickens - Charles and Gerald - are reminding us that all need, want, suffering and goodness necessary to remedy such hardships that many of our fellow travelers to the grave experience, must be done in the now, the present.  Perhaps that is why both this story and the mere mention of Christmas evoke in us a feeling of safety and security - that embodiment of the true meaning and message of Christmas.

And, like those two children, all of us want to, need to cling to Christmas. Christmas - the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickens book, or the Season or the birthday of Jesus seem to be the only thing left we as adults can believe in and cling to that has the power to heal, to inspire, to imbue happiness. Whether it is the warm memories of childhood past, the current joys of a bountiful or happy life, the events and experiences that deck the halls and give us glad tidings with cherished friends, or the personal satisfaction of sharing what we have, often anonymously, with others. It is a happy time of year. The twinkle lights seem to smile at us. Even the traffic lights blink red and green. Music is in the air. Christmas carols bring a smile to all but the coldest of hearts and bleakest of spirits. They start early and end too quickly.

Dickens is timeless because he understands the human heart, and the human condition, capturing our need for redemption, to believe in something greater than ourselves. And exhorts us to keep Christmas in our hearts all year long. Why? Because there is a power of Christmas that gives us permission if not inspiration to change.

Clinging to Christmas is not hiding from the world by the fireplace. It is the courage to go forth into the world and make a difference.  Which is why my friends and I will pack the hall several days after Christmas, to enjoy a rare one-woman performance of A Christmas Carol presented by Dickens Scholar, Jennifer Emerson.  I've seen her before - it is a great performance.  We need one more dose of Rx Christmas to energize us for tasks at hand in 2013.

Clinging to Christmas - it is why many organizations still offer performances of Christmas themed events after December 25th. We all want to believe, want to stay in this magical time, just a little bit longer.

In childlike fashion, none of us wants to give up these happy times. Secular or Christian - Christmas is a magical time. It does turn all but the hardest hearts a bit softer. Where wallets and human kindness are often locked tightly away secure and safe from an ever challenging world for most of the year, something happens on the way to December 25th that inspires us to take a risk, shoulder someone else's burdens, sing in the car with childlike glee the goofy, sacred or newly minted carols, hug a coworker before leaving work Christmas Even, share a greeting to a stranger that from January to November would go unnoticed, put a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle, and unlock our best attributes for the world to see, touch, experience and be better for our presence if not presents. And it is the one time of year we are all allowed to be dare believe in something, someone greater than ourselves...whether it is Santa, Jesus, the three Spirits of Christmas, parents, or the role model we have attached our affections and human needs upon. 


"Christmas" ... the very mention of this sacred and all too often secularized word evokes as many images and descriptions as range the realm of human emotions and experiences. For some, images of Bethlehem, the Nativity scene, Christ's birth, and very spiritual lessons accompanied by Angels' proclamations and exhortations of "Glory to God on the Highest" and "Peace on Earth." For others, it is a time of extra good behavior in the hope Santa in the Spirit of the Holiday, will forget former trespasses and reward recent redemptions, as recounted by mom and dad! For others it is a time to remember Christmases past, savor the carols, decorations, and generally kinder behavior we see in folks. For some it has the power to lead us to generosities for the sake of The Season, as Dickens writes, and help our ‘fellow travelers to the grave' through volunteerism, donations or just being kinder and gentler to those we meet.  And for some, it is a painful reminder of better times now lost - replaced by loved ones departed, loss of income, isolation, and poor health. To paraphrase Dickens, Christmas is a time when want is keenly felt.

We need a little Christmas, right this very minute

As Santa writes in the conclusion of his Autobiography "It's been my pleasure - even more, it's been my honor to share the holiday spirit with so many of you. Don't ever apologize for loving me as much as I love you. After all, for those who don't want to believe in me, no amount of proof would ever be enough, but for friends like you, who believe what they know to be true in their hearts no further proof is necessary... My old friend Clement Moore was the first to write these words as a message from me, and they can't be improved upon, so I'll conclude with them here:

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."


The Angels told us "for unto us is born a Savior, Christ the Lord." Dickens shared with us the Spirit of the Season. Santa either as a Saint, historic figure or the childhood embodiment of the ultimate Benefactor who bears the name of Christmas, there are many opportunities to cling to Christmas all year long from the lessons they shared.

Wishing that you find Santa in your heart, and let him loose all year long! And, wishing you and your family the ability to believe, the need to cling to Christmas, and that you benefit from all the joys, blessings, good health, and opportunities to help others that this blessed Season can provide and inspire.

And in the inimitable words of Tiny Tim  "God bless us, everyone." 

Merry Christmas and Happy 2013, RBM

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    


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